The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesteron (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1993) 276 pp.

If you were marooned on a desert island and could take only one book (besides the Bible) which would you pick? For me the one chosen would have to fulfill two purposes: to entertain and to help keep sanity. And of course must have sufficient depth to not tire of frequent re-reading. The candidates I came up with included:

Augustine On the Trinity
Aquinas Summa Theologica
Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life
Pascal Pensees
William Law Serious Call
Newman Apologia
Terese Autobiography of a Soul
C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
Lonergan Insight.

But, keeping in mind the two criteria, the book I would finally choose is The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.

Perhaps that choice seems extravagant especially considering the other books on the list. But let me start with the fact that Everlasting Man had a decisive role in one of the most important conversions of the this century. C.S. Lewis described reading it in 1925 when he was still an atheist:

Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the
first time saw the whole Christian outline of history
set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense . . .
I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive
"apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believe,
I thought that Christianity itself was very sensible
"apart from its Christianity." (Surprised by Joy p.223)

When asked what Christian writers had helped him, Lewis remarked in 1963, six months before he died, "The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton's The Everlasting Man." (God in the Dock p.260.)

The book has two parts. The first is titled "On the Creature called Man." It uses the available evidence from paleontology, ancient history, comparative religions, etc. but brings it together in remarkable ways. The questions he asks (and to some extent, answers) are the ones we continue to brood over: How is man different from other animals? Why are there so many religions? How do we make some sense out of our long and tumultuous human history?

The questions raised in the first part receive a more definitive answer in the second: "On the Man called Christ." It is not that Jesus gives a step by step response to each of the queries. Rather he begins by throwing us into an even more perplexing quandary. Chesterton asks what it would really be like to read the Gospel for the first time, free of all preconceptions. The effect would not be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," but rather someone who jars our sensibilities. As Chesterton points out, the most honest response might be "stark staring incredulity." Did he really do that? How could he say something so preposterous?

Chesterton's genius is to help us face the paradox, the seeming contradiction. Really there are only two possible responses to the riddle of the Gospel. Either Jesus is a blashemer (as Caiphas charged) or he is who he claimed to be--and the apostles professed him to be. In that claim Jesus is unique. Mohamet did not suggest equality with Allah. Moses was never placed on a par with Yahweh. Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius never made assertions of divinity. Those who did were megolomaniacs like Caligula or the unfortunate people we confine to insane asylums. Yet few consider that Jesus was that kind of person. Chesterton, like C.S. Lewis after him, helps us confront the incredible implications of this greatest of all paradoxes.

He then asks the next logical question. Is the Church a continuation of Jesus or a breaking away from him? The first might seem hard to accept, but the second involves even greater difficulties. As a help to making the correct choice, Chesterton asks us to reflect on the analogy of a key. Its truth depends on whether it fits the lock. You won't get very far analyzing its seemingly odd shape. What you have to is see if it opens the door.

In reflecting on the key (the creed) Chesterton uses what he calls "the witness of the heretics." (a.k.a. dissenters) Each one tried to reshape the key. The church has constantly resisted that. As Chesterton brilliantly illustrates, only if the key retains its shape will it unlock the door.

In the final chapter Chesterton gives one of the most remarkable arguments for the truth of faith: the "five deaths" of the Church. We are not the first ones to live in an age which has concluded the church was moribund, passť. But it has experienced some remarkable resurrections like a phoenix rising from its own ashes. Chesterton analyzes five times when that happened and offers his reflection on what that means for us today.

I say "today" because even tho Everlasting Man was written almost 75 years ago, it addresses many concerns which are still current: evolution, feminism, historicism, cultural relativism, economic and social determinism, etc. It is salutary to see that back in the 20's these issues were already "old stuff." TV programs and magazine articles meant to be bold or shocking all of a sudden seem hackneyed.

In addition to its other merits, this book has the value of being immensely entertaining. Not that it is an easy read. In fact it requires a lot of concentration. Chesterton sometimes piles paradox upon paradox in a way that one can feel dazzled and conclude he does not have substance behind his words. But that is a hasty conclusion. To read Chesterton requires a patience which is perhaps more difficult in our age. Yet to read him slowly and meditatively will bring great rewards. I have read this book (and listened to the audio version) many times; I keep receiving enjoyment and new insights. That is why I would want to take it with me to that desert island.

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The Boston Transcript summed up Everlasting Man as follows:

Considered by many to be Chesterton's greatest masterpiece of all his writings, this is his whole view of world history as informed by the Incarnation. Beginning with the origin of man and the various religious attitudes throughout history, Chesterton shows how the fulfillment of all of man's desires takes place in the person of Christ and in Christ's Church.

This book is also available on Audio Cassettes (unabridged)

The American Chesterton Society

G. K. Chesterton Mega-Links Page

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